Don (Duck) Dunnington stood soberly at the podium, waiting to receive an award from Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, presented by Dunnington's friend Corky Doyle, when suddenly a buzzer went off. There was a mad dash to the door by five uniformed people, and moments later the sound of sirens filled the air.
Dunnington reacted to the interruption with a big smile.
Three more times during the 90-minute awards presentation the proceedings were momentarily delayed by the same hectic routine, but the sirens provided only music for Dunnington's ears. On the 40th anniversary of his founding of the rescue squad, he was watching a living testimonial to his efforts that have guided the squad from its humble beginnings to an efficient rescue organization.
"It was sort of like service rendered," said Dunnington, 58, of the interruptions."I was very prooud. If the public could have waited, it would have been nice. But we're set up 24 hours a day. We're not going to stop just because I'm being honored here."
The awards ceremony was part of the Dunnington Appreciation Reception at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Headquarters. More that 650 persons crowded the two-year-old, $1-million headquarters on Old Georgetown Road and Battery Lane to honor Dunnington, while eight of the facility's 13 vehicles stood outside in the driveway, a symbolic tribute to the man who was most responsible for building the program from one ambulance in 1945 to its present size.
Inside, WMAL radio's Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver hosted the ceremonies in which Dunnington received more than 20 awards from local groups for distinguished service.
"In my 58 years, there's nothing that's been as outstanding in my appreciation as this day," Dunnington said after the ceremony. "This to me was the highlight of my 58 years. I was supremely pleased."
"I think it's a great tribute to him," said Donald Fitzgerald, chairman of the reception, who has known Dunnington since 1951. The organization - the fact that it's the largest rescue squad in the world, that it's a volunteer organization - shows Duck is very popular. He has a lot of friends."
Dunnington started the squad in 1938 as the Chevy Chase First Aid Corps with two ambulances - a 1928 Nash, which cost $100, and a 1933 Packard - but Dunnington's service in World War II put a temporary end to that venture. Upon his return in 1945, he paid $500 for a down payment on a 1941 Cadillac ambulance before eventually raising $3,000 to pay for the forerunner of the present department. Dunnington's knack for fundraising, several awards presenters said, has been a continuing factor in the operation of the squad, which has a budget of approximately $350,000 a year that comes strictly from donations.
While Dunnington's retirement was mentioned in a couple of the awards speeches, the graduate of Wilson High School in Northwest Washington and the University of Maryland is not expected to slow down too much if the pace he has kept so far is any indication.
A hydroplane driver for 28 years who three times turned in world records, Dunnington has served, just to name a few sidelines, as a Red Cross first aid instructor for 15 years, as a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce for 30 years, as a volunteer of the Chevy Chase Fire Department for 12 years and as a member of HEROES, a businessman's group that provides financial aid for families of police, fire and rescue personel who have died in the line of duty.
Dunnington, who lives in Rockville with his wife Dora, has operated the Super Surplus Center on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda for 33 years.
With all his activities, Dunnington is never too busy for the rescue squad. "I'm 58 years old now. I've got to start tapering off," he said. "I don't want to be chief anymore."
But "I'll still do whatever the guys around here ask me to do."